No longer criminals for medicating themselves

THE legalisation of cannabis moved a step closer to reality this week after Health Minister Mary Harney announced she is open to making cannabis legal for medicinal purposes in Ireland.

This comes after Drugs Minister Pat Carey met with pro-cannabis campaigners and pledged his support for a piece of legislation to have cannabis legalised for medical use.

The benefits of using cannabis for medicinal purposes have been widely debated, but in a number of clinical trials worldwide where patients suffering from various cancers, arthritis, HIV/AIDS and depression were given cannabis as an alternative treatment, many were shown to experience improved quality of life and significant pain relief.

In one trial involving 160 patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) taking the cannabis-based medicine, Sativex, the patient’s muscle spasticity was shown to have significantly reduced and the study found no adverse effects on their mental capacity or mood.

But although thousands of MS and cancer patients could benefit from it, the drug cannot be prescribed by doctors here because it would breach the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, anyone found in possession of cannabis is guilty of an offence andliable for a fine or a prison sentence from 12 months to three years.

However, under the potential new legislation presented to Mr Carey, The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act 2010, cannabis could be made available to people suffering from medical conditions that have been scientifically proven to benefit from the use of the drug.

According to campaigner Gordon McArdle, creator of the proposed legislation, it would provide much-needed legal protection for patients suffering from a range of painful and debilitating medical conditions.

Mr McArdle, who himself suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder following an incident he experienced while living in California, took it upon himself to draft the legislation when he discovered that using cannabis was the most effective way of controlling his condition.

“I have tried various medicines and they caused more problems such as nausea or insomnia, so I was forced onto the streets to find something. I had previously been prescribed cannabis by a Californian doctor when I lived there so I knew it worked effectively. I drafted the legislation because I don’t want break the law anymore, I don’t want to be a criminal for medicating myself and I shouldn’t feel like I risk a criminal record to use a medicine that keeps me alive,” he explained.

The legislation, which is based on Californian and Canadian medical cannabis laws, would permit patients to grow a regulated number of cannabis plants, or purchase the medicine from state-licensed dispensaries and allow patients to legally possess and consume the medicine under the guidance of a doctor.

It also states that patients will be open to prosecution if they do not use the medical cannabis in a responsible manner, or if they are found to be supplying cannabis to others.

“I spent three months researching more than 1,200 scientific documents that support the medical use of cannabis in treating medical conditions when I wrote the legislation,” said Mr McArdle.

“I did not want criticism regarding the public safety issue, and in the legislation itself hopefully there are enough safeguards to say there are no ways for people to abuse the use of it if we treat it as a health issue.”

While the Department of Health has proposed a change in the law that would allow cannabis be used for medicinal purposes, they stressed that there was “no question” of legalising cannabis for the general public.

While there have been links between cannabis and mental health problems such as anxiety and paranoia, and that it may act as a “gateway” drug to harder substances, Mr McArdle says that he feels that is for the most part incorrect.

“A huge proportion of the population smoke cannabis, but only a fraction of these are heroin users or otherwise. If you use cannabis responsibly like any other pharmaceutical drug and take it in small doses there will be no negative health effects.”

Mr McArdle added that the legalisation of cannabis for medical use would not only have significant health benefits for prescribed patients, it would also have a significant financial impact on their lives.

“People suffering from medicinal conditions usually suffer financially as well. I am spending about €100 a week to keep myself medicated. If prescribed persons were allowed to grow their own cannabis it would cost them a fraction of that. The medical cannabis trade would also have huge financial benefits for the Irish economy, and it would stop as much money going to criminal gangs.”

A Facebook campaign set up by Mr McArdle to have cannabis legalised as a medicinal drug currently has more than 4,200 supporters, with the numbers rising on a daily basis.

The legislation is also due to be discussed at a meeting of the EU Health Commission in Brussels over the coming days.

“The support has been great – I think Ireland is in a place now where we can talk about this becoming a reality because the stigma has been lifted a bit. There is no reason why medical cannabis should be available in one country and not another – I am positive that this can be done.”

- The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act 2010 can be viewed at www.hempirl.webs.com

- www.facebook.com/pages/The-Compassionate-Use-of-Medical-Cannabis-Act-2010/140483342633867

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